Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review of Kursk by Lloyd Clark (Headline Review, 2011)

In early July 1943 the largest single battle in history took place around the Kursk salient on the frontline between German and Russian armies. It involved over two and half million men and several thousand tanks and planes and lasted less than three weeks. In that time the Russians suffered 177,847 casualties and lost 1600 armoured vehicles and 460 aircraft; the Germans lost 56,872 casualties and lost 252 tanks and 159 tanks. In a pincer movement from the north and south, the Germans launched an offensive to try and cut the salient off and ring the Russian troops. They played straight into the Russian plans, who had constructed several rings of defences designed to absorb and neutralize the attackers and to wear them down by shear attrition. This was to be followed by a large counter-offensive. For the Germans still reeling after Stalingrad, this was the last major offensive of the war; a last throw of the dice. 'Stalingrad was the end of the beginning,' in Churchill's words, 'Kursk was the beginning of the end.'

Lloyd Clark's book seeks to tell the story of the battle, placing it in the context of the larger German-Russian relations and the Eastern front, and to tell it from both sides. This scope means the book falls between two stools. On the one hand, the contextualisation material takes up far too much of the book. It is only at page 218 (out of 389) that we get to the battle. For anyone who is interested in military history, the pre-war material is a distraction; they most likely bought the book to read about the battle in particular. The context needed to focus solely on the immediate run up to it, not the previous thirty years, and it needed to be a lot shorter (it could have started around page 166, for example). On the other hand, given that the battle constitutes less than half the book and it's trying to detail a massive engagement, the material is quite sketchy and sometimes difficult to follow. There are a number of maps in the book, but the text never refers to them once and they appear at chapter breaks rather than where they are discussed in the narrative (and it's quite difficult to link up text and map due to labelling and coverage). They could have been used to much better effect. The description is quite dry, and whilst Clark tries to place the reader on the battlefield through the voices of some of the men who took part in the battle it doesn't work as effectively as it might. Kursk works as a general primer to the hostilities between Germany and Russia, the Eastern front, and the battle, but readers with a general interest in Second World War military history who want a detailed account of the battle itself will probably be better off looking elsewhere.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Completely agree. I nearly used this book as a source for a school essay and was bemused when I realised that the actual battle was described so late in the book. Why the author decided to go as far back as the 1923 Munich Putsch is a mystery to me. And you're right it is very dry yet also portentous.